The SEO vs SEM Conundrum Solved

Ravi Davda Rockstar Marketing CEO

Written by Ravi

Jul 22, 2021

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There’s enough lingo in the digital marketing industry to confuse even experts. But one of the trickiest ones is SEO vs SEM. A lot of businesses believe that these two terms mean the same thing. That’s not too far off from the truth. But it’s not entirely true either. Then there are some who believe that these terms are chalk and cheese. As tricky as it sounds, that’s not untrue either. Did we confuse you even further?

Today we are going to clear the doubts once and for all. SEO vs SEM is a frequent discussion in our consultancy calls. Most businesses don’t have the faintest idea of the differences in these closely-related terms. Some are confused about which one to choose. That’s why we decided to create this blog post.

We are going to cover these things today:

  1. What is SEO?
  2. What is SEM?
  3. The differences in the two
  4. What are the similarities?
  5. Which one should you consider for your business?
  6. What are the pros and cons of each one?

That’s not all. We have a lot more interesting facts and figures to share with you. So stay with us. Let’s unravel the SEO vs SEM mystery once and for all.

What is SEO?

What is SEO

SEO stands for ‘Search Engine Optimisation’. It is a marketing channel for websites looking to improve their presence on Google search. The exact techniques are quite elaborate. Here’s a summary. SEO is an evolving process of optimising a ‘website’ to improve its organic rankings in search results pages.

There are two key things to note here. Its organic rankings. That means natural traffic. Traffic that will arrive on your website through search. You do not have to pay for it. Secondly, we are optimising a website. Everything SEO-related is linked to a website.

Let’s assume for a moment that you are a ‘tarot card reader’ and you live in Hampstead. You have a business website too. You can optimise this website for better rankings for search phrases related to your business. For instance, ‘Tarot Card Reader in London’. An SEO optimised website has better chances of turning up on page 1 or 2, for similar search phrases. When a visitor searches for your business, they find your website. They visit the site and they choose to do business with you. You’ve just made a sale from organic search.

What’s SEM?

What is SEM?
What is SEM?

SEM stands for ‘Search Engine Marketing’. Just like SEO, this too is a marketing channel. But here’s the tricky bit. There’s no universal definition for SEM. It’s an umbrella phrase used to describe multiple marketing channels related to search. So, SEO actually comes under SEM.

So does PPC or Pay Per Click. That’s another marketing channel and a very effective one at that. The only difference in SEO vs SEM, is that with PPC, you run ‘ads’ for specific search phrases called ‘Keywords’. In the above-mentioned example, you can run an ad for ‘Tarot Card Reader in London’. Google bills you for every visitor who clicks on that ad. That regardless of whether it converts into a sale, or not.

A lot of experts consider SEM to be an alternative term for PPC. But in reality, SEM can also include SMO or Social Media Optimisation. SMO is another set of techniques used for optimising a business’s social media presence. Social Media is not a direct ranking factor anymore. At least as of this year, it isn’t. In the past, Google has stated that social is a ranking factor. Then they backtracked and said that it isn’t. That’s typical of Google. But there have been case studies galore on this subject. Most of them have shown that Social Media Optimisation does influence rankings positively.

Let’s sum that up. SEM = SEO + PPC + SMO. Some SEO experts believe that each one of these three terms are mutually exclusive. But at Rockstar Marketing, we think otherwise. Any marketing channel that influences your business’s rankings in search can be included under SEM.

SEO vs SEM – Which is more effective?

SEO vs SEM - Which is more effective

That depends on a plethora of factors. For some businesses, SEO is a more pragmatic choice. But for others, SEM works way better. At Rockstar Marketing, we analyse every business on the basis of a multitude of parameters. Our team of SEM experts conduct an audit. They analyse the competition. We speak to the business and understand their goals. Based on the answers, we create a customised strategy while choosing from SEO vs SEM. At times, it is a mix of SEO & PPC. But sometimes, we choose either one of the two.

To fully understand what works better for your business, let’s take a look at some pros and cons.

SEO vs SEM – Pros & Cons

Everyone with a website wants to rank on search engines. SEO might appear to be the more logical choice. It’s organic traffic. The ROI is incredible. It’s more sustainable. But it’s not without its pitfalls. More importantly, it’s not as ‘cost effective’ anymore. That’s what you must consider while deciding between SEO vs SEM.

SEO – Pros

  • It’s free traffic. If you are ranking for keyword phrases linked to your business, you will have a steady inflow of traffic. That depends on the search volume for the phrase. But you will not have to pay a dime out of your pocket for it.
  • It’s organic traffic. PPC has witnessed a staggering growth in recent times. But search still accounts for 53% of web traffic. So, you might receive a lot more traffic with organic rankings.
  • It’s sustainable. SEO delivers long term results. A skilled SEO agency in the UK will use Google-friendly ranking techniques. These rankings are less likely to disappear in days or weeks. We call it ‘Penalty-Free’ rankings. As long as your website ranks for the keywords, you continue to get traffic.
  • The ROI is tremendous. Imagine if you can rank for a keyword like ‘Best Pizza in London’. You are going to witness a huge influx of traffic, and possibly conversions. It might be a long process to rank for that keyword phrase, mind you. But once you do, the ROI will be incredible.
SEO vs SEM - The Pros & Cons of SEO
SEO vs SEM – The Pros & Cons of SEO

SEO – Cons

  • It’s slow. There’s no set time frame to achieve an SEO ranking. In most cases, rankings are tough to achieve. If an SEO company promises you a ranking within a stipulated time frame, it’s a red flag. New domains do not rank for at least 3 to 6 months. Minimum. Add to this keyword competition, content marketing & link building. It’s an exhaustive process.
  • It can be expensive. SEO is an evolving process. It’s an ongoing effort, for months and years sometimes. This means that you will have to engage an SEO company for that long. Most small businesses don’t have the patience or the budget for that.
  • Rankings may be fragile. Google uses a series of AI-powered algorithms to improve the quality of search results. These algorithms can sniff out the slightest hint of unethical SEO practices. But sometimes, even websites that have followed Google’s guidelines to the T, get penalised. Generally, the penalty is revocable. But that takes time. Until then, the rankings will disappear. In some cases, Google chooses not to revoke it. You may have few options then.

SEM – Pros & Cons

SEM on the other hand may be slightly better suited for most businesses. At least the PPC bit, that is. The rest, like SEO will take time.

PPC is a very effective part of SEM
PPC is a very effective part of SEM

SEM – Pros

  • PPC will generate instant traffic. If you set up a Google ads campaign now, you will start to get traffic in an hour. If you are an ecommerce business in a highly competitive industry, PPC might be a better bet. Your success depends largely on the skill of the PPC team you engage though.
  • PPC traffic is 50% more likely to generate a sale. Want some more motivation? Almost 85% of marketers use PPC now.
  • SEM is a holistic approach towards search marketing. You are not putting all your eggs in one basket. Instead, you use a multi-pronged strategy. PPC kick starts the marketing plan. At the same time, the search engine marketing team will work on SEO. You can also start SMO simultaneously. This will amplify your SEO efforts.

SEM – Cons

  • It can be more expensive than focusing on SEO alone. You have to allocate your marketing budget equally to all three channels. For a lot of small businesses, that’s a tough ask.
  • PPC is a tough nut to crack. You need a skilled PPC marketing team that can run targeted Google ads campaigns. The campaign needs to be constantly monitored and tweaked. You should get the max ROAS.
  • It can be overwhelming. Small businesses often get overwhelmed trying to multitask. If you are considering SEM, hire a team of experts. There are no cutting corners here.

SEO vs SEM – Which is better for your business?

Sorry to sound like a broken record. But there’s no binary answer to this. Having said that, here’s a checklist that we provide to our clients. This generally helps them narrow down the right option.

SEO vs SEM - Which is better for your business?
  • What’s your marketing goal?
  • What’s the urgency for traffic?
  • What is the industry?
  • How competitive is it?
  • Can you allocate a budget for all three channels simultaneously?
  • Are you alright with slow and sustained results?
  • Can you engage the services of a skilled marketing team for months?

Your choice should depend on the answers to some of these questions. If your marketing goal is conversions, start with PPC. It’s very effective for sales and leads. If you are building a blog, go for SEO. It may take time. But organic traffic works really well for blogs. Service websites can try either.


We hope that this helps clear the doubts about SEO vs SEM. Regardless of which marketing channel you choose, it’s crucial to hire an experienced team. We can be that team. Speak to us now to know how we can help magnify your presence on google search.


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